Dispatch: Never Hungover at the Superdome
A date with Tommy DeVito and the New York Giants
The biggest story in football is the arranged marriage between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, one which has brought unprecedented eyes and attention to the NFL regular season. The second biggest, against all odds, is an Italian kid who lives with his family in the New Jersey suburbs named Tommy DeVito. Heading into Sunday, DeVito had been tasked with serving as a dreadful New York Giants team’s quarterback with the explicit goal of losing games for the past four weeks; he’d failed his job miserably, winning three of four games and creating something of a national media sensation about the fact that he was, well, an Italian kid from New Jersey. The apex of what we might call Paisansanity came last week on Monday Night Football, when ESPN captured for national audiences both a formidable performance and game-winning drive from DeVito and also a sort of Italian exploitation phantasmagoria. For a network tasked with televising an otherwise unexceptional and unmarketable game, DeVito’s singularly New Jersey Italian heritage became fodder for the insatiable content machine. The telecast captured DeVito’s family tailgate in the bitter parking lot of MetLife Stadium, catered with chicken cutlets, arancini, ziti, endless tubes of balsamic glaze, dueling Italian and New York Giants flags; DeVito’s agent, dressed in the sort of outfit an early AI model would assign to a stereotypical Italian backslapper; DeVitos’ father, kissing and being kissed by his agent after every positive play; the Italian hand, everywhere. The Giants won, and Tommy DeVito was briefly elevated from local oddity to national phenomenon.
Watching this display, which might almost be deemed offensive if Italian people were capable of experiencing rather than blithely repressing shame, I felt something like duty dawn upon me to write about Tommy DeVito. It’s not that I particularly wanted to write about DeVito and that for which he stood — the final saturation point of the now omnipresent, Italian, Sopranos-core, “I’m walking here” meme, the evolutionary inflection point of professional-sports-as-launching-pad-to-crossover-celebrity, the existential question of what one roots for when they find themselves rooting for bad teams — but rather that I, by virtue of my positionality as a half-Italian, lapsed Giants fan, New Jersey native son, had to write about DeVito. The universe spoke: this week, DeVito’s New York Giants would be coming to my new home, New Orleans, to engage in the sort of mid-off that only the emergence of an Italian wunderkind (there’s, to my knowledge, no such word for a prodigy in Italian, Italian people have far humbler ambitions) could render interesting. Whether I liked it or not, I would be there.
If you’re from New Jersey, you likely have some connection to Tommy DeVito: both in the abstract sense of “representation,” of course, but also in the very real way in which all true New Jersey celebrities occupy about two degrees of separation from the average Garden State resident. Being from New Jersey means that Tommy DeVito is the nephew-in-law of the town’s most visible and vocal dog walker. Being from New Jersey means Tommy DeVito’s father, the one who spent the last few weeks on national television kissing his son’s agent and hugging his wife, is the plumber for the local restaurant you worked your first job at. Being from New Jersey means that a bartender from that very restaurant will reach out to you because he’s in town for the Giants game against the Saints and will ask you to get a drink, claiming in no uncertain terms to have the drop on the DeVito family tailgate. Being from New Jersey means you will take that information, information you know almost to a certainty to be fabricated wholesale or at least greatly exaggerated, and tell your closest friends that you have plans to hang out with the DeVitos before kickoff.
So it was that I found myself scrambling to put together a mass ticket order for DeVito’s much-awaited visit to New Orleans on the morning of Sunday’s game, overpromising to a group of friends and my girlfriend, an Italian herself, that we would be hanging out with the DeVito family. The morning arrived with great anticipation: it was a bitter, chilly day in New Orleans, and I could not imagine something that would make me feel closer to home than drinking warm beer with a group of charming liars on some slab of concrete underneath an overpass. DeVito’s arrival revealed itself as an occasion to celebrate my home state; as with discussions of the young Italian quarterback himself, such celebration would have to come Trojan Horsed in a thick veneer of ironic distancing before I could admit that, actually, I quite meant what I said about being fond of New Jersey. In the moments before I left my apartment, I was visited by the ways in which the then-still-ascendant DeVito furor so closely mirrored representations of New Jersey throughout popular culture. There’s the obvious, of course, the totally overdone Italian meme, some odd combination of the continued hegemony of The Sopranos among the internet class, a tremendous failure of imagination in popular humor, and an irrepressible and unmistakeable desire on the behalf of many to trade in racial stereotypes so long as they’re not the forbidden ones. But when I talk about DeVito as an authentic representative of New Jersey, I’m more interested in his being cast in a role as a football player—DeVito, the young backup quarterback who has leaned into a garish yet fundamentally harmless display of Italian identity, tasked with little more than being a punchline and losing games on the way to a top draft pick for the Giants, who bucked expectations and at least attempted to assert that he was good enough to compete, that he brought something to the table, that he might be capable of a miracle. Sunday’s tilt against the Saints felt invested with far more symbolic than actual football importance, a sort of referendum upon New Jersey’s capacity to be more than just an overlooked blip or misunderstood, lazy punchline.
The fact that I’d entered such a heady, existential headspace about what promised to be a dreadful football game between two bad teams was unfortunate for a host of reasons, chief among them that I’d volunteered myself as a sort of Jersey ambassador to my extended group. Notwithstanding my girlfriend, who had experienced her fair share of the attendant culture through frequent visits to New Jersey and her non-Jersey but felt Italian heritage, I led a group of the uninitiated and felt the attendant burden to be both translator and tour guide. The day started in representative style; having texted the bartender the night before who assured me he’d send me the location of the DeVito family tailgate in the morning, I promised my group that we’d be joining New Jersey’s newest Camelot. Predictably, the bartender’s tune changed in the morning; where he’d once guaranteed a location, he now qualified that he was “waiting to hear back from [his] guy” to see whether he knew where the DeVitos were. After the wave of shame toward my group and frustration at the missed journalistic opportunity passed, I reframed the experience as the first in a series of New Jersey cultural immersions: there was nothing, I explained, more Jersey than overpromising on the basis that you knew a guy who knew a guy.
Having failed to get coordinates on the tailgate, we decided to convene at a bar instead. Already, the content mill had begun churning out Italianisms; Sean Stellato, DeVito’s cartoonish agent, was pictured wearing a lime green suit, white basketball sneakers, and a pin to the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, into which he had just been inducted. We drank, assembled our group, and lost track of time as I contextualized DeVito: he was, as I explained, as authentic a New Jersey Italian-American as one could find not because of the put on nicknames (“Tommy Cutlets” being particularly uninspired) or ridiculous chains, but because he was in essence a sheepish young man who still lived with his parents, hiding what otherwise might be considered a lack of personality or identity behind a pastiche of readymade, well-worn cultural cliches. In other words, it wasn’t enough for DeVito to be just a surprisingly serviceable third-string quarterback who had injected a bit of liveliness into an otherwise pitiable Giants season—a liveliness that would certainly come to bite them in terms of future draft positioning but that was nevertheless worth celebrating, as, regardless of the context, rooting for your favorite professional sports team to lose is embarrassing beyond the pale—no, he had to do it as a sort of caricature of himself, locked in a constantly iterating two-step dance of tremendous irony and sincere pride. And, I explained, seeing as the whole “New York Giants” thing was really a misnomer at best and maliciously false advertising at worst, insofar as the Giants were from top to bottom a New Jersey product, it felt fitting that the most short-term fun and long-term pain that Giants fans would experience this year came at the hands of this almost self-parodic young man, who in typical New Jersey celebrity fashion would likely either be promoting clubs or selling real estate in five years’ time. All this over drinks meant we watched kickoff from the bar.
Once the game began, we embarked upon the twenty-or-so-minute walk to the stadium feeling at peace with our lateness and confident that we would not miss any scoring. Minutes in, however, we were approached by a man in a souped-up golf cart who offered to get us to the game for $20 flat. Getting in the golf cart was the sort of thing I imagined one does when they don’t live in New Orleans, when every idiosyncrasy feels whimsical rather than ratchet, when an entire city presents itself to you as a vacation, and yet we got in the cart and had quite a nice time; the driver understood his role, blasting “Uproar”, swerving through traffic cones, and delivering us the sort of tourist-in-our-own-city experience we paid for. At the gate stood the gamely flotsam: scalpers, street performers, road-beer hawkers, a smattering of half-assed “Who Dat”s. We made our way to the seats in time to catch a Saints touchdown, one of three on the game, each one feeling more accidental or unconvincing than the last.
We were nominally there to watch a Saints game, enjoy the stadium-friendly bounce music, gawk at the sequined older women dance in the nosebleeds, coo at the toddlers wearing their Drew Brees’ daughter’s headphones, drink $14 beers, say Who Dat. We did those things. But mainly we watched DeVito, from whom, regrettably, there was not often much to see. My girlfriend noted early on that the lack of production was not DeVito’s fault, which was more than just a show of Italian solidarity; his receivers dropped well-placed balls, his line collapsed for sack after sack. Seemingly each time, a different member of the Saints offensive line would do the Italian Hand. Later, the in-dome MC made the point more explicit during the “Entergy Power Play:” “The Saints gave Tommy DeVito a New Orleans welcome,” the MC announced over footage of one of the many sacks, “with a ‘how you doin” and a ‘Merry Christmas!’”
The half-baked puns were as close as the day got to offering a referendum on the then-still-ascendant DeVito moment. Everything else hit, in essence, with a thud. On one designed run, DeVito was crushed by a defender and taken into the injury tent to be assessed for a concussion. A punter kicked a forty yard field goal. The Ying Yang Twins performed at halftime. The crowd joined together in a Jumbotron karaoke of “Margaritaville.” From the cheap seats, I did not feel proximate to DeVito or witness to a cultural moment; I felt like I was drunk at an NFL game between my childhood favorite team that had helped me fall out of love with football and my new city’s team that, through charming ineptitude and a moving culture of support around it, had sucked me reluctantly back in. The win kept the Saints alive in a playoff race that would inevitably result in a crushing blow for the city of New Orleans; for the Giants, the loss confirmed that the brief DeVito win streak would prove too little to salvage their season, ultimately trading a potentially franchise-changing draft pick for three weeks of wins and memes.
Leaving, though, I never questioned whether it was worth it for DeVito and the Giants; of course it was. Football, in its brutal slog, is rarely romantic or funny; the brief crest of DeVito’s rise was both. Isn’t the highest aim of a professional sports team, at the end of the day, to deliver a fleeting moment of joy to the people who have been conscripted into a parasocial, pseudoreligious relation to it? For the 31 teams a year who will not win a Super Bowl, might success not be defined as “creating something worth watching?” Here’s what I know, at least: with the exception of Frank Sinatra, New Jersey celebrities return home when the nation has forgotten about them, guaranteeing something like a middle-class income in perpetuity on the strength of their past spotlight. Before he was a meme, I saw James Gandolfini every weekend at Rutgers football games. The actor who played Johnny Sack works as a real estate agent, and used to buy advertisements in my local paper before it went out of business and was replaced by an Instagram influencer. There are bars in my hometown at which Tommy DeVito will never have to pay for a drink again, around the corner from the bakery owned by Buddy Valastro, the Cake Boss himself, where DeVito will one day after this is all over appear on a party flyer alongside a promotion for discounted Rolling Rocks. If the stars align, when that day comes, I will go and shake his hand and let him know that, while we all had fun, it wasn’t just a joke.
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